The Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century saw Amsterdam emerge as one of the world’s most important centers of trade. With trade came wealth, and with wealth, a blossoming of arts and science. Amsterdam became a vibrant cultural hub, and many of the achievements and advances of the time have lost none of their influence. Among those are the paintings of the Dutch Masters: the beauty and depth of their portraits of people and of life are admired to this day.
- Explore the wealth of Golden Age art in Amsterdam’s major museums.
- See how the city of Amsterdam rapidly expanded during the Golden Age.
- Explore the traces of the Golden Age in Amsterdam today.
An international and tolerant metropolis
The beginning of Holland’s Golden Age coincided with the revolt against the king of Spain in the Seventeen Provinces (better known today as Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg). During this period, there was an influx of two groups of immigrants: Sephardi Jews fleeing persecution in Spain and Portugal for Amsterdam’s relative freedom of religion; and refugees from Antwerp and other Flemish cities, where Spanish rule had been re-established. Many more European immigrants also built new lives in Amsterdam, Haarlem and other thriving Dutch cities in this era. Among these groups were many internationally well-connected merchants and intellectuals. Holland’s Golden Age could not have happened without them; in the year 1600, one in three Amsterdammers was an immigrant.
The Jewish community lived in what is now known as the Jewish Cultural Quarter. At its heart is the beautiful Portuguese Synagogue, located nearby today’s Waterlooplein and the leafy Plantage neighborhood. Built in 1675, the synagogue is still in use but is open for visitors, too. The impressive interior has not changed since it was built. There is no heating or electricity, and in the evenings, the synagogue is lit by more than 1,000 candles.
Trade and discovery: from Amsterdam to the world
As Amsterdam took over from Antwerp as the region’s leading trade center, Dutch ships began sailing around the world, laden with spices and other goods from present-day Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka. Amsterdam became home to the world’s first stock exchange, and the trade and processing of goods likes tulip bulbs, cheese, herring and spices resulted in a spectacular surge in wealth in the city. And with the establishment of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in 1602 – the world’s first multinational company – Holland’s position as an economic superpower was set. The VOC had chambers in Amsterdam, Delft, Rotterdam, Middelburg, Enkhuizen and Hoorn. The West India Company followed, trading in sugar, tobacco, gold... and, sadly, people. Slavery was a dark, yet inextricably intertwined aspect of the economic successes of the time, and has not been forgotten. Each year, on 1 July, Amsterdam remembers its part in the slave trade and marks its abolition on this day in 1863.
The scale and influence of Amsterdam’s seafaring exploits and international trade are documented extensively in the National Maritime Museum, located in the former naval arsenal on Kattenburg, just east of the city center. There is an interactive Golden Age exhibition and even a life-size replica of an East India Company ship called The Amsterdam.
Building the Golden Age in Amsterdam
Amsterdam’s success meant that its population doubled to 60,000 between 1570 and 1600, and building new infrastructure became an urgent necessity. This expansion resulted in the world-famous Canal Ring. And Amsterdam’s population continued to increase. By 1670, no fewer than 220,000 people lived in the city. Amsterdam’s urban development, its explosive growth and how this changed the city can be seen in the Amsterdam Museum, which documents the city’s history, as well as in the Grachtenhuis museum. Aside from art and objects, the Canal Ring is the perfect reflection of Golden Age Amsterdam. More than 400 years after its development began, it’s now a UNESCO World Heritage site that dazzles visitors to the city with its beauty, historic architecture and evocative sights.
A Golden Age for arts, science and culture
Amsterdam’s religious and intellectual freedom, and the country’s enormous wealth gave great momentum to the sciences and the arts, above all painting. What’s more, with the emergence of the Dutch Republic following the revolt against Spanish rule, it was no longer the ruling nobility or the Catholic church commissioning all art, but citizens from many backgrounds and often with smaller houses. The new customers of artists such as Rembrandt, Vermeer, Frans Hals and Jan Steen were well-to-do merchants, and thus the artistic focus shifted from primarily religious, biblical themes to also include worldly subjects.
This opened the way for a process of incredible reinvigoration and new heights of breathtaking artistic achievements. Still lifes of everyday objects, portraits and land- and seascapes celebrating Holland’s naval power were popular, as were group portraits of guilds, civic guards and other associations important in Dutch society. Rembrandt’s ‘The Night Watch’, on show in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, is the most famous specimen of one such group portrait, and many more can be seen in that museum, as well as at the Hermitage Amsterdam’s remarkable Portrait Gallery of the Golden Age. For a more intimate perspective of artistic developments in Golden Age Amsterdam, visit the Rembrandt House Museum, a meticulously refurbished building in which Rembrandt lived and worked, next to the bustling Waterlooplein market.
Book your ticket
Get set to explore Golden Age Amsterdam by booking your museum tickets online. Enjoy peace of mind and direct entry without long queues, allowing you even more time to enjoy the city’s art and history.
We recommend: Follow the Golden Age Trail to Haarlem to discover the artistic impact of Frans Hals and his peers. Or dig deeper into the trading importance of Holland by exploring the influence of the East India Company in Enkhuizen and Hoorn.